Episode 037 - Optimizing Your Home Bar

Optimizing Home Bar.jpg

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast! This week, we’ve got a Bar Cart Foundations episode meant to give you a better understanding of all the different ways you can go about organizing and optimizing your home bar.

But first, a cocktail challenge.

Challenge: Spring Cleaning Cocktails

We all have them - those bottles that we’re too sentimentally attached to or too lazy to just finish off. And so I thought that in the spirit of Spring cleaning, I’d like to see what kinds of drinks you can come up with to help free up some space on your bar for some new arrivals. This is kind of the cocktail equivalent of “leftover night,” where you clean out the fridge - except there’s (hopefully) a much lower risk of coming across something moldy on your bar.

So, snap a picture of your spring cleaning cocktail creation, post it on Instagram or Facebook, and tag us @modernbarcart, and maybe we’ll select one or two of you lucky listeners to receive a free Spring-themed gift courtesy of Modern Bar Cart.

How to Think About Your Home Bar

Now, let’s talk about the various ways you can organize your home bar to be more aesthetically pleasing, and more functional at the same time.

The first thing we need to talk about here is scale. That is: how large is your home bar, and what sort of presence does it have?

On the small end, we’ve got folks with a bar cart, whether that’s a stationary one or a mobile one with wheels. In the middle, we’ve got a setup like mine, which is sort of a cross between a set of cabinets and a dry bar that has a lot of bottle storage space, but no sink, running water, or serving surface. And then finally, we’ve got larger dry and wet bars that take up three-dimensional space and often involve seating and serving surfaces.

From small to large, those categories will apply to most people listening out there, and I’m guessing you’ve got a pretty good idea of which group your home bar falls into after hearing me describe those.

Then, we've got a few questions that can help you to zero in on how to go about optimizing your home bar.

The Big Picture Question

What purpose do I want my bar to serve?

Are you using it to display or conceal your collection? Is it meant as a hub for serving? Do you want to throw large cocktail parties or have intimate gatherings?

The Problem Solving Question

What problem could I solve by reorganizing it?

Are you running out of space, or does your bar look a little empty at the moment? Is there any portion of the cocktail-making process that’s problematic for you when using your current setup?

The Aesthetic Quesion

How do I want my bar to look and feel?

Is there a current aesthetic in the room that you’re trying to match, or are you going for a more eclectic vibe? Are there any conversation pieces or elements of flair that you want to showcase to your guests? And is there any particular symmetry or organization scheme that might represent sort of a marriage of form and function?

So, we’ve got the three types of home bars: small, medium, and large. And we’ve also gone through the three types of questions you should be asking yourself about your bar - the big picture question, the functional or logistical question, and the aesthetic question.

Now, here are tips and tricks for all three types of bars that can help you to answer these questions and start making your way to a better-organized and more beautiful home bar.

Optimizing Your Bar Cart

Starting with the smallest of our home bar setups, we’re going to take a brief and overly general look at the history of the bar cart - essentially, why they are the way they are.

See, bar carts come from a service industry background where tableside drink preparation was common. This was the case from the very late 19th century, all the way up through the mid-20th century, and it still exists in a very limited way to this day. Basically, you’d order your drink, and the bartender would wheel the bar cart right to your table and prepare it in front of you.

Logically, you couldn’t have an entire bar on your bar cart, so in many cases, the bartender would swap out the bottles behind the scenes after receiving the drink order and then arrive at the table with an ice bucket, a standard set of glassware and mixing tools, and maybe a couple of standard bottles that never leave the cart - like vermouth, whiskey, gin, and vodka. Possibly some curacao. These things varied from establishment to establishment.

But, the big takeaways are these:  

  1. Bar carts have wheels because they were originally meant to be mobile mini bars.

  2. They weren’t originally meant to hold all the bottles and hardware that most home bartenders today would need to make their drinks.

So, fast forward to the current day, and we’ve got a big problem:

Even though there are a large number of aesthetic designs to choose from, the functional design of the bar cart hasn’t changed all that much. And yet, we’re trying to use them very differently.

By and large, if you’re living in a small space, you’re attempting to cram ALL of your bar tools and bottles onto one bar cart, and the result is going to very often be a cluttered mess that doesn’t look great, or doesn’t make the process of creating a cocktail any easier. Plus, I bet that 90% of people who have a fully stocked bar cart are absolutely horrified to move it for fear of losing a bottle or a glass in the process of moving it. And that may be because you keep your bar cart on a carpeted surface that’s hard for it to wheel around on, or because it doesn’t have any rails that keep the bottles safe from falling off the edge.

Solving the Bar Cart Dilemma

First, ask yourself if there’s a way to reserve your bar cart for one primary function (like bottle storage or glassware storage), or perhaps cocktail service, if that’s something you want to try out. I guess my point is - a bar cart that does one thing really well and really stylishly is better than a bar cart that does several things poorly.

Another thing you might consider while rearranging your bar cart is if you’re taking the most advantage of the vertical space available. Most bar carts have a top and bottom shelf, with a decent amount of space in the middle for bottles.

Slotted tracks for stemmed glassware

Slotted tracks for stemmed glassware

But would it be possible for you to hang your stemmed glassware from a few slotted tracks that you could install right beneath the top shelf? This is what many bars do, and my grandfather actually made me a wine rack with the same functionality, which is a huge space saver for my coupe glasses and wine glasses. Picture in the show notes so that you can see what that looks like and how it might work on your bar cart.

My final suggestion here is for someone whose primary issue is crowding and clutter on the bar cart, and it’s really simple:

How can you think of evolving your bar cart into part of a larger home bar setup, instead of using it as an island of liquor in your living room? This is basically the question of what your bar cart Pokemon will look like when it evolves into the next level version of itself. Maybe the hardware lives on the top shelf, your liqueurs live on the bottom shelf, and all the rest of the liquor gets migrated somewhere else nearby, which gives you a whole new set of possibilities both for the bar cart, and for the rest of your evolving home bar setup.

It’s always tempting to keep things as they are, but when your bar cart starts to groan under the weight of all those bottles, don’t ignore it. Take it as a sign that you’re ready to grow and evolve.

Medium-Sized Bar: A Case Study

For this section, we’re going to use my home bar as a case study because it’s had the chance to grow and evolve for the past two years, and I think it plays the role of a really functional big-bar in a relatively small apartment setting.

My wife casually refers to our home bar aesthetic as “black and wood,” meaning that black and brown are the primary colors, contrasted against a white background, and that there’s a decent amount of wood in the picture. This is a flexible look, and it’s perfect for this point in my life, where apartment living is the reality, and I don’t have a whole ton of money to spend on decorating.

Beyond the general color scheme, my home bar consists of two rectangular shelving units arranged to look like a capital letter “L” lying on its side. Half of the square cubby-holes in these shelving units have doors, and half are just open cubes, and these alternate in almost a checkerboard pattern. So, you can see what’s in half of the cubbies, but the other half are concealed.

(Dirty Bar / Clean Bar)

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Pros/Cons of this Setup

For starters, I love that I have eight cubbies that are completely concealed, which allows me to store a TON of bottles without looking like the entire room is dedicated to booze. Keep in mind, this bar is in my living room, by necessity, but not everyone wants liquor to be the focal point of their living space.

I get the best of both worlds because my spirits are kept behind closed doors, unless they’re too tall to fit in the cabinet, and my glassware and bar tools go on display in the open cubbies, which lends a bit of class and an eclectic feel to those open cabinets.

These alternating cabinets also play another role - categorization. They allow me to group my spirits by type, which makes finding a bottle way less of a game of chance. I’ve got my whiskey cabinet, and my gin cabinet because these are my two favorite spirits. Then I’ve got my amaro and liqueur cabinet, where things like Campari and Grand Marnier reside. Then I’ve got my rum and tequila cabinet, sort of grouping those two spirits together via latitude. And finally, I’ve got a cabinet reserved for my “rail drinks,” those inexpensive bottles that are the automatic go-to when you’re making a punch, or a gin & tonic, or a whiskey ginger.

These categories evolved as my drinking preferences evolved, and as my collection of spirits grew. And that’s probably the biggest reason why I enjoy having a modular, flexible home bar setup that’s also sleek and symmetrical.

What's on My Bar?

Books, for one. I went to grad school for a literature-related field, so I have a lot of em. I think the empty cubbies on the bar are a great way to display the prettier books, as well as a logical home for all my cocktail recipe and reference guides.

Here’s a list of some of the other stuff on my bar:

  • An oriental fan with Hendricks gin branding
  • Custom Maker’s glasses dipped in their signature red wax
  • A cup full of mini DC flags, taken from our tasting room at Tales of the Cocktail 2016
  • A flask
  • Mason jars full of questionable bitters experiments
  • A small wine rack
  • Polish pottery from my grandmother
  • Pictures from my wedding
  • A handmade cream and sugar set from my friend Sarah
  • A cigar box I’ve had since I was a kid
  • Candles and a lighter
  • And a baseball signed by Hall of Famer Chipper Jones

Tips for Optimizing Large Home Bars

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  1. Make a plan for regular use that can also be scaled up for hosting groups of people. Right? That’s one of the reasons to have a full bar. But if you build it with just yourself in mind, you might find that what is perfectly functional and cozy at first becomes a trap that has you constantly running around when you’re hosting.

    Remember, ideally, the bartender shouldn’t ever have to come out from behind the bar. Not to say that you WANT to spend the whole event behind there, but the point is you should BE ABLE TO without having to run upstairs for ice, or bring a load of glassware up to the dishwasher.  
  2. Break out the big guns, if you’ve got the budget. Here, I’m thinking that a counter-mounted mechanical citrus juicer is a nice touch, and will save you a lot of hand squeezing. Some mirrors to make the room look bigger, or to show off your liquor collection are also a nice touch. And flexible rail lighting is also useful if you’ve got a space that receives varying amounts of natural light.
  3. Before you decorate, get out from behind the bar and pretend you’re one of your guests. Sit where they would sit. See what they would see. This will help you understand where their natural focus will be, where you’ve got blank space you could fill with a plaque or a picture, and how well the space works together as a whole. Once you’ve done the perspective-taking exercise, then step BACK into your own shoes, and think about if there’s anything you want to communicate to your guests with this space. I’ve got an example of this at the end of Episode 26 - Cocktails and Place that shows exactly what I mean by this.
  4. Finally, if you’re planning on slinging some serious drinks behind this bar, take a few minutes to look at pictures of how the pros set up their bars for optimum efficiency. If you’re on Reddit, there’s a great subreddit called “r/barbattlestations” that has awesome photos of home bartenders who have done a great job perfecting their setup. And you might be able to take a few tricks from their book.

A Final Thought on Home Bars

The last piece of insight I have for this episode applies to bars of all shapes and sizes. And it’s very simple. Without getting too mystical about it, remember that your bar is a reflection of who you are. You’re a person with passions, flavor preferences, and a story to tell, and the way you set up your bar should communicate that to people, if only in small ways.